The term Swahili derives from the Arab word sahel, meaning coast, and was first used some 1,300 years ago when Arab and Persian traders settled on the East African coast. Since then the language has spread widely from its coastal origins to become the lingua franca of East Africa and has, perhaps, lost some of its richness and complexity in so doing. Swahili is a Bantu language which has incorporated thousands of foreign words along the way, the majority of them being Arabic.  The purest form of the language is to be found on the island of Zanzibar and the further away from there you get, the more ungrammatical becomes the Swahili.

Swahili is a liltingly beautiful language to listen to and a charming language to get to know. Surprisingly enough it is also one of the easiest languages to learn largely because it is pronounced exactly as it is written, with the stress nearly always on the penultimate syllable. It is also satisfyingly regular, which means that even with a very limited knowledge you can make yourself understood.

Unlike the British, who are rather lax with regard to greetings, the Swahili speaking people make very strong use of greetings. Particularly after a prolonged absence when anything up to several minutes may be expended on greetings, before the actual subject for discussion is broached.

In his definitive book Simplified Swahili published by Longman, P.M Wilson, the master of all Swahili teachers warns that 'To fail to reply to a greeting can cause great offence'.  So, to avoid such an eventuality, let’s start with the most common greeting to be used in Kenya and one which every visitor learns within minutes of landing in the country. 

  • Jambo!                      
  • Reply:  Jambo!
  • Hello!  

As in English, however, it is more polite and therefore more usual to give the other person some sort of title.

  • Bwana                    for a male             Jambo Bwana!
  • Mama                    for a female          Jambo Mama!

These greetings will then often be followed by a fuller form of greeting which takes the form of asking a question in the negative.

  • "Hujambo?"             
  • Reply: "Sijambo!"
  • Are you fine? Yes, I am fine!

After this it is customary to ask a few topical questions, such as:

  • "Habari ya nyumbani?"             
  • "How is everything at home?"
  • "Habari ya siku nyingi?"                        
  • Reply:"How have you been (used if you haven't seen someone in a long time)?"

  • "Habari ya watoto?"                       
  • "How are the children?"
  • "Habari ya safari?"
  •  Reply:"How is/was your journey?"

The subject matter of the question does not affect the reply however, since it would be considered as lacking in tact to suggest that the news was anything but good at this stage. Thus the reply is always '"Good" or "Nzuri" which is handy because if you fail to catch the question and simply hear "Habari ya.................." you have a ready-made reply.

Other conversational gambits are

  • "Habari gani?"        
  • " How are you doing?"
  • "Nzuri"
  • "U Mzima?"              
  • "Are you well?" "Niko Mzima"

When approaching a house, or sometimes along a river or along a footpath the custom is to call "Hodi?" (In some areas, the custom is to make this call three times each of which should receive an answer before proceeding.) The word has no equivalent meaning in English but vaguely means "Hello, is anyone about, please may I enter?" The reply, if in the affirmative, is "Karibu" ("Draw near"). On entering either party might then say "Starehe" ("Be at ease").

On the coast some Arabic greetings may be used, one of the more charming of which is:

Shikamoo! (I hold your feet!)
Reply: Marahaba (delightful!)

Finally, in order to say goodbye, you must first be sure that this is the last parting of the day. In which case the correct greeting is "Kwa heri!" (meaning "to luck"). If the parting is only temporary, then you might use:

"Naenda sasa!" ("I'm off now”)
  Reply: "Haya!" ("OK").

If this has wetted your appetite for Swahili and you would like to learn more, there are several teach-yourself courses around, in book and audio form. Alternatively, you can learn some from our guides during safari or easier still, you could make friends with a Kenyan!